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David Piper : From Austin 7 to Porsche 917

David Piper was an early believer in Colin Chapman so it was no surprise that he came into grand prix racing in the very early days of Lotus in Formula 1.

Whereas John Cooper had been building single seater race cars for some time, Colin Chapman came late into the game, partly influenced, one feels, by Chapman’s invitation to do some development work on Tony Vandervell’s Vanwall grand prix car. The crunch came at a hastily created Formula 2 race organised by the British Racing Drivers Club as a support race to the 1956 British Grand Prix. As soon as it was announced, John Cooper got to work and in July 1956 the Formula 2 race was duly run with Cooper’s 1.5 litre T41 Formula 2 car, the only prototype for the new Formula in the race!

Colin Chapman ran three Team Lotus sports cars in the event including one for himself and he watched as Roy Salvadori in the Cooper won the race ahead of him.

Three months later Chapman showed his prototype, and first, single-seater, the Lotus 12 Formula II car, to the press. It had a space frame chassis, was front engine and looked purposeful.

However, Chapman had other things in mind, Formula 1 and one or two Lotus 12s raced in Formula 2 in 1957.

The Formula 1 car duly appeared for the 1958 season but it was in 1959 that Lotus really took off with the Lotus 16.

Meanwhile Colin Chapman had been selling off his Lotus 12s and at the end of the season he ran Graham Hill in the new Lotus 16, which is always referred to as a Mini-Vanwall as it aped the shape of the Vanwall. Graham Hill ran the prototype, chassis 363 in Morocco.

That winter the same car, but without its Formula 1 engine, was sold to Grand Prix Drivers Club member David Piper.

“The first 16 I bought I ran as a Formula 2 car which I raced for the first time at Aintree in the 1959 BARC 200. I raced it all over the place and at the time I had a 2.5 litre Climax engine, a 2.2 litre and a 1.5 litre and so swopped the engines around depending on the race.”

David later bought a second Lotus 16 from Chapman and took both to New Zealand for the 1960 races at Ardmore, Wigram, Dunedin and Invercargill. He ran his own car with the 2.5 litre engine and put local New Zealander Arnold Stafford in the other one with the 2.2 litre engine.

“I was on the front row of the grid for Ardmore and was doing quite well but we broke a lug on the gearbox and I had to take it down to Team Aviation at Aukland harbour and they welded it back on again. I was able to finished second in the Lady Wigram trophy race on that trip.”

Back in Europe David had problems in practice in the French Grand Prix of 1960 and did not start and in the British Grand Prix he finished 12th.

By the end of the 1960 season the Lotus 16 – a front engine car- was totally uncompetitive in Formula 1 but he did one or two smaller races and also drove the Gilby-Climax on one occasion before he decided to sell the Lotus 16 to Fred Tuck.

It is interesting that David’s main Lotus 16 was at the Goodwood Revival meeting in 2015 driven by its present New Zealand owner, Roger Wills.

As for Formula 1, I quite enjoyed it and funnily enough I might have done well in it but I was very friendly with Johnny Lurani in Milan who had just started Formula Junior. I went to Colin Chapman and bought one of the first Lotus 20 Juniors and did a season alongside Jo Siffert in a Lotus 18 and we travelled around the circuits together.

“After that I got a bit bored with it and decided to move into GT cars. I tried to buy Ada Pace’s short wheelbase Ferrari Berlinetta but ended up buying a new Ferrari GTO from Ronnie Hoare at Maranello Concessionaires.”

David Piper was born in Edgware, London on December 2 1930, the son of an electrical engineer. His father was mainly involved with cinematography before he joined John Logie Baird, the television pioneer, and became one of the engineers responsible for the development of television. Indeed he was sent out to New Zealand in the late 1930’s and 9 year old David went with him. However, they didn’t stay long because shortly after the Second World War began in September 1939 father Piper was recalled by the British War Office to work on the development of radar.

At a fairly early stage David decided he didn’t want to be an electrical engineer like his father but wanted to be a farmer and his grandmother offered him her farm to run. This led to him starting his own business travelling round local farmers and offering to do their ploughing, crop spraying, baling and harvesting.

His first links with motor sport were with his own modified Austin Sevens using jettison tanks from Mosquito fighter planes as bodywork, in the same way as the hot rodders were doing in California in the early 1950’s.

Piper was good, quick and won a number of events progressing through the club racing ranks but his father gave him the usual ultimatum to make up his mind whether he was going to be a farmer or a racing driver. When he decided to become a racer “……the old man wasn’t very pleased. He cut me off without a penny and told me never to darken his doorway again”

Piper had a lot of success in his Ferrari GTO and at the end of 1962 he won the Kyalami 9-hour sports car race in South Africa sharing with Bruce Johnstone.

By now he was beginning to branch out and decided early in 1963 to run his GTO at Daytona. He booked the car on the liner Q.E.II and it sailed from Southampton for New York. From there Piper drove the car on the road from New York through the Carolina’s to Daytona.

In the race he finished a creditable fifth overall and afterwards went out for a meal.

“I was having a meal in Chez Brunez in Daytona with Jo Bonnier and Ulf Norinder – who also wanted to buy a GTO – and who wanted to buy my car. He then explained he had to wait for his allowance to come through before he could pay for it and as the GTO was all I had in the way of assets I didn’t sell him the car. Meanwhile I had met Ed Cantrell, who used to buy and sell airplanes. He had an airfield at Zephyr Hills, Florida with all sorts of old War-Birds. He told me he would like to buy my GTO and would like to drive it at Sebring so we shared the car and finished sixth overall.

“Bill France then said he would like me to drive against the NASCAR stockers and introduced me to John Holman of Holman & Moody, Tiny Lund and Fireball Roberts. Bill wanted me to drive the GTO against the stockers on the tri-oval but Dick Jeffreys, the competitions manager of Dunlop tyres, told me they had never run on banked circuits and I couldn’t use their tyres so we fitted Firestones. We had to bash the wings out to do the race and I think we finished fourth or fifth.”

With the money he got from Ed Cantrell David immediately ordered another GTO (C/N4491) which was delivered in June 1963 just in time to be prepared for the Reims 12 hour race.

“We made a lot of modifications to that car. We took six inches off the windscreen height and chopped the roof to reduce the frontal area. We put the back wheels on the front and had special Boranni wheels made for the back. We then copied what John Coombs had done with his GTO and had extensions made to the knock-off hubs so we could change the wheels quicker. Then we put a lever on the filler cap with some catgut from the cap through the rear window and up to the interior mirror so when we came into the pits we could pull the catgut and open the filler cap. The crew could then use the NASCAR fuel churns which I had copied from the NASCAR drivers at Daytona. I actually started to make those churns in England and got an order for 50 of them from the Brands Hatch organizers!

Then came 1971, Steve McQueen and the Hollywood film “Le Mans”.

To make this film McQueen called on a number of drivers with their cars to make up the race scenes and one of them was David Piper with his Porsche 917 and a Lola T70.

“The film took about six months to make and they had three Porsche 917’s,two or three Ferrari 512’s and lots of other cars. It was a slow process and plenty of time was wasted because the script was not finalized. For one sequence no one knew which car was intended to be in the lead so one morning I drove the 917 in the lead with Mike Parkes following in the 512, and in the afternoon we were supposed to swap round.

“After lunch we started off at Indianapolis corner. As I reached the apex for White House at about 120 mph a rear tyre came off its rim and I lost it. I hit the guardrail, which collapsed because the posts were only pegged into the sand, and it formed a launching pad sending the car 25 or 30 feet in the air. When it landed it broke in half. I was strapped into the engine half but my right foot was trapped under the pedal in the other half. My foot was badly broken, and covered with sand. A French surgeon pinned it together, put the leg in plaster and the next day Steve McQueen arranged for a plane to fly me back to England. I was in such great pain I made them take off the plaster and the English surgeon explained the wound had not been cleaned properly. He tried for six weeks to save my leg but eventually it was amputated below the knee. After this I never looked back and was up and running within a few months.”

David’s wife Liz, delivered their first daughter, Katherine just ten days before his accident. Luckily for David Liz had been Rob Walker’s secretary and knew all about the highs and dreadful lows of motor racing and even today one sympathizes with her as David, like Peter Pan, has really never grown up. His enthusiasm bubbles over. Even in his early seventies he displayed no sign of giving up and was still racing like a demon at historic events; and this despite his artificial leg. Now, at 85, he still enjoys recounting the many tales of his remarkable life.